Years before Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the youngest of five children. He and his siblings were raised by a single mother who was relatively poor. Following these challenging beginnings, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College where he built a reputation as an excellent athlete. He played four different sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1938, Robinson was named the region’s Most Valuable Player for baseball.
Robinson then attended the University of California-Los Angeles. He was the first-ever student here to letter in four varsity sports. Sadly, Robinson could not finish his education here and had to leave in 1941 due to financial issues.
To support himself, Robinson moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Here, he played semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears. Robinson’s time with this team was brief, though, because he joined the military after the United States entered World War Two. Robinson served in the United States Army as a second lieutenant from 1942 to 1944. He never saw combat. While serving, Robinson met and became friends with boxing champion Joe Louis.
In 1944, Robinson was arrested during boot camp in Fort Hood, Texas, for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus. Robinson’s family, friends, activists from the NAACP, and black journalists came together to open up the eyes of the public to this injustice. By the end of Robinson’s trial, his charges were dropped. He then received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1944.
Shortly thereafter, Robinson began playing baseball professionally. At the time, African Americans and white baseball players played for separate leagues—Black players for the Negro Leagues and white players for Major League Baseball. However, Robinson was then selected to play for an all-white team—the Montreal Royals. The president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Ricky, was the one who selected Robinson for the Royals. “Mr. Ricky,” as many knew him, wanted to break baseball’s color barrier and integrate the sport.
Robinson played for the Royals from 1946 to 1947. He was then called up to play for the Dodgers. From the beginning, Mr. Ricky knew Robinson would have a hard time on his new team. He made Robinson promise not to fight back against those who directed racial slurs, taunts, and threats toward him.
Just as Mr. Ricky predicted, Robinson faced racism while on the Dodgers. He and his teammates were turned away from gas stations, hotels, and restaurants. This caused great tension and frustration on the team. Sometimes Robinson’s teammates would refuse to play with him, and some of his opponents refused to play against him. In a very moving and now-famous moment, Robinson’s teammate Pee Wee Reese once turned to Robinson while a crowd shouted racial slurs, put his arm around him, and said, “[y]ou can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”
Despite the adversity he faced while on the Dodgers, Robinson played for the team from 1947 to 1956. In 1949, he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Robinson also took his team to the World Series an impressive six times, though they only won once, in 1955. Robinson’s jersey number—#42—is the only jersey number in history to be retired by all Major League Baseball teams. After his retirement from the sport in 1957, he worked as an activist for social change.
For his outstanding skill, legacy as the player who broke baseball’s color barrier, and the way he handled the adversity he faced, Robinson was admired by many during his life. Though he died in 1972 from heart problems, his reputation continues to influence many athletes and fans to this day. Following a particularly-impressive game, Mr. Ricky once said to Robinson, “I was passing a sandlot and a little white boy was up to bat. He wiped his hands on his pants, swinging with his arms outstretched just like you do. A little white boy pretending he was a black man.”